What’s underneath the U.S. Custom House?

 This story first appeared in the February issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

 

LEGEND

The U.S. Custom house is built on bales of cotton, and occupying Union forces during the Civil War stole the statues from the niches.

 

FACT

The foundation for the building is a grillage of cypress members, then 1 foot of hydraulic cement, shells and granite chips, then brick topped by granite walls. Work began on the foundation on Oct. 23, 1848, with 250 men and seven supervisors. Originally the base of the foundation was only 3 feet, 4 inches below grade, but, by 1930, it had settled to 11 feet, 8 inches below grade, taking the cornerstone below the sidewalk. The building’s constant settlement during construction resulted in the deletion of a cupola and granite cornice.

When begun, it was the largest federal building in the country except for the Nation’s Capitol. A possible source for the cotton bale legend could be that, when the digging for the foundation began, sheet piles of wood were used to hold back the soil. Cotton was used to “caulk” the joints.

As for the tale of the stolen statues, they never existed. While patriotic statues were contemplated, funds were never forthcoming. A possible source of the legend could be that, during the Civil War, the building was not yet complete, and the marble column capitals sat on the floor of Marble Hall in crates. Likely citizens mistakenly assumed statues were in the crates. When the capitals were installed, people may have mistakenly assumed the statues were stolen.

 

Other facts about the Custom House:
• The building’s architect, Alexander Thompson Wood, had just been let out of state prison for killing his superintendent, Geo Clarkson, on a previous job.
• The front of the building faces North Peters Street because the Creoles who gave the land did not want to benefit the Anglos who occupied upriver Canal Street.
• The original marble column capitals for Marble Hall were lost in the shipwreck of the Oliphant.
• Architect James Dakin described the Custom House as a mausoleum for an Egyptian king. Mark Twain said it was inferior to a gasometer and looked like a state prison.
• The Confederacy used the unfinished building for the construction of gun carriages, and the Union used it for a military prison.

 


New Orleans Truths vs. Tales is presented by the Friends of the Cabildo. Robert J. Cangelosi Jr., AIA, NCARB, is president of Koch and Wilson Architects and a prominent architectural historian. He was the co-editor of the last two volumes of the Friends of the Cabildo’s “New Orleans Architecture” books and has served as past editor of Preservation in Print.

 

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